Al Qaeda’s Leadership in Yemen

Intelligence Online: Formed less than a year ago in Yemen (IOL 588), Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was able to provide the spark that led Nidal Hassan to go on the rampage in Texas in November and then Nigeria’s Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try to bring down an airliner near Detroit on Dec. 25. In response to AQAP’s growing power, American security agencies have been saddled with a painful dilemma: what to do with the 62 Yemeni militants still being held at Guantanamo Bay? Six inmates have already been shipped back to Sanaa but Washington hesitates about letting any more return.

Two of AQAP leaders had been held in Guantanamo Bay: the Saudi nationals Said al Shehri andMohammed al Oufi. Expelled to Saudi Arabia, they spent some time in the interior ministry’s re-education camp before finally being released. Turning up in Yemen, they issued a video recording last year underlining their intention of destroy “Jews, crusaders and puppet regimes.”

AQAP is headed by the ideologues Nasser Al Wahayshi, a former secretary of Ossama Ben Laden who escaped from one of the Yemen political security department’s jails in 2006. Since 2007, the Yemeni imam Anwar al Awlaki has drawn much closer to AQAP. Son of a former agriculture minister in Yemen, al Awlaki was born and raised in the United States.

Two members of the group which organized the Sept. 11 attacks prayed in his mosque in California. Spotted by the FBI, he emigrated to the United Kingdom and then to Yemen where, like al Wahayshi, he was held for a year before being released. Al Awiaki is a key figure for AQAP because he speaks flawless English and has a highly popular web site which he can use to recruit isolated militants.

Long tolerated by the government of president Ali Abdallah Saleh, who has an ambivalent relationship with Jihadist circles, al Awlaki was targeted by an air raid carried out by the Yemeni air force on Dec. 24. Sanaa claimed he had been killed but the imam was quick to prove otherwise by popping up on the Internet.